It’s a psychoactive drug with a molecular formula of C2H5OH which dissolves easily in human tissue, suppressing excitatory neurotransmitters while enhancing inhibitory ones. Humans have been making it for around 9,000 years, and Americans consume more than 2,100,000,000 liters of it every year. It has been prohibited and reinstated, loved and reviled. It constitutes one of the biggest headaches for administrators both at Princeton and in colleges around the country. I do not hyperbolize when I say that ethanol, or what we have come to refer to as alcohol, is a significant component of the American college, and therefore the Princeton, undergraduate experience.
Many students drink more during these four years than they ever will again. One might ask why we choose to drink, given its proven adverse health effects and often illegal status. Asking undergraduates why they choose to drink on Thursday and Saturday yields unsurprising answers: because “it’s more fun that way” or to “blow off steam.” While these are perfectly valid reasons, one has to wonder about their subtext. Though complex, the principal motivation to drink lies, I believe, in our fundamental desire to feel closer to the people around us. We are trying, through neurology and psychology, to break through whatever social, physical or emotional barriers which separate us in sobriety. An understanding of the motivations leading students to drink is critical when thinking about young adults’ relationship with alcohol.
Alcohol does not taste good enough and is not healthy enough to exist as an end in itself. It rather exists as a means to some end. What that end is varies from person to person, evening to evening. Some just want to be “cooler,” feeling that they are more fun to be around when they’re drunk than when they’re sober. Some do it to break free of their otherwise prohibitive inhibitions so that they can express themselves freely without fear of judgment or consequence. Others drink in search of romance or physical gratification, seeing alcohol as a necessary tool to satisfy their yearning.
A friend of mine once suggested that we drink out of nostalgia for our childhood, and I don’t think that he was too far off the mark. As we age, life grows more familiar and less exciting. When we were children, the smallest things seemed remarkable. I still remember marveling at the vastness of the ocean and the deliciousness of plain bologna. There were no limits on the wonder of the world. Alcohol has the capacity to enliven our senses, transforming otherwise mundane happenings or conversations into spirited events. It can break through the jaded shell which experience builds around us and allow us to connect with the world in a different way than we can without it.
Furthermore, social requirements meant nothing to us as children. My sister and I would run half-naked through our neighborhood, banging on neighbors' doors and chasing squirrels. We would hide in between the shelves in grocery stores and say ridiculous things. With maturity we lose the opportunity to hide in grocery stores and say whatever comes to mind. Tact and civility replace spontaneity and impulse. By drinking, we can return to this childlike state. Attention spans drop, and emotions come to the surface. It is said that drunken words are sober thoughts: a phenomenon allowing us to speak with all the frankness and honesty we require.
We feel enabled to follow our impulses, singing more, dancing more, kissing, hugging and laughing. Though the impulses and cravings of college students are decidedly different from those of small children, the fact remains that yielding to those impulses can be gratifying. Drinking allows us a medium and an excuse for acting out our desires, allowing us to relive an earlier time void of all the constraints and responsibilities of adulthood.
Unfortunately, sometimes we forget that alcohol is merely a means to an end, focusing more on the act of becoming drunk rather than the reasons for it. If you can identify the reasons you drink, it might go farther in getting you toward those goals than alcohol alone and allow you to use alcohol in a way more in line with your personal hopes and dreams.
This column isn’t meant to champion or condemn alcohol. It’s a time-honored facet of the human experience which will continue forever. But with clarity comes purpose, and it is purpose which makes us grounded. Gaining clarity about the role of alcohol in your life will not only refine your relationship with drinking but also grant personal insight into what motivates you.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.